Oh, Olivia

Britney, Jessica, Mariah: They learned it from watching you!

When Olivia Newton-John's Sandra Dee traded her frilly collars and poodle skirts for screw-me stilettos in the final scene of 1978's Grease, it marked two important cultural shifts: It set the bar entirely too high for women in hot pants; also, it marked the trajectory of every major female pop star to come. From puritan to pouty, from schoolgirl to scandal--the diva of the last quarter-century is one who learns that sweetness and light may be good and all, but sex sells. Goodbye teddy bear, hello bare midriff.

Consider the metamorphosis of Britney Spears--from avowed virgin to beer-swilling slut. Contrast the plain Mariah Carey of "Vision of Love" to the jiggling gangbang fantasy of "Honey." In the early '80s, Whitney Houston was "Saving All My Love for You." These days, she's saving all her money for crack. Jessica Simpson, you ask? Give it another season, and you're bound to see a wardrobe malfunction. And poor, poor Christina. Or Xina. Or whatever. Bless her dirrrrty little heart.

The Sandra Dee transformation was so prescient that it marked Olivia's own career, which began in Australia when she was 17. Back then, she was a twinkle-eyed teen with a claret voice, but over the years she became the blond seductress who sang, in her biggest hit, "There's nothing left to talk about--unless it's horizontally." Personally, I never bought Olivia's growling, dirty-girl image. Perhaps that's because I came of age at a time when little girls wanted nothing more than to be Olivia Newton-John--pure of heart and timbre, the sparkling ideal of female beauty as potent as a Barbie doll. And yet, Physical sold better than any album she ever did, and she is surely remembered better for her turn as "Bad Sandy" than any of her other film roles. Simply put: Olivia Newton-John is a hugely influential figure in modern pop. Don't believe me? I'll tell you about it, stud.

Look at me, I'm Sandra Dee: Olivia Newton-John's transition from schoolgirl to sexpot set a precedent for generations of divas to come.
Look at me, I'm Sandra Dee: Olivia Newton-John's transition from schoolgirl to sexpot set a precedent for generations of divas to come.

Details

Olivia Newton-John performs Monday, September 20, at Bass Performance Hall.

Lesson No. 1: Pop divas are the mothers of reinvention

Madonna is often lauded for her ability to reinvent herself, but as far as I can tell, she mostly changes her wardrobe and hairstylist.

Lesson No. 2: Film and television = Cha-ching

Long before Jessica Simpson goofed on Buffalo wings, Olivia had her own TV special, 1976's A Very Special Olivia Newton-John. But her breakout came with Grease, a sublime piece of fluff that has it all over Crossroads, Desperately Seeking Susan or The Bodyguard. (We will not discuss Glitter. )

Lesson No. 3: Gay pays

These days, lesbianism is so hot that Madonna would probably fist Britney Spears on the MTV Video Music Awards if they'd let her. But Olivia Newton-John didn't court rumors of homosexuality; they just happened, and it turned out to be a terrific boon to her career. Back when she appeared on Johnny Carson in the '70s, Olivia naïvely said she had "more girlfriends than boyfriends." It kick-started a long-standing rumor that she was homosexual, making her beloved in the lesbian and gay community (which probably would have embraced her anyway, given her role in Xanadu, perhaps the queeniest movie of all time). She playfully tweaked the rumor by playing a lesbian in the 2000 film Sordid Lives.

Lesson No. 4: You and me, we should be dancing in the sheets

Olivia met her second husband, Matt Lattanzi, when he was a dancer on the set of Xanadu. See: Britney Spears and Kevin Federline. See: J.Lo and Cris Judd.

Of course, Olivia's career didn't have the staying power of Madonna or that other trailblazer, Cher, and everything was sidelined when she learned, in 1992, that she had breast cancer. More than 10 years later, she's on her second tour in two years, surely attracting an audience much older and more conservative than the pole-dancing divas she schooled so long ago. And yet, for someone who transformed so often, part of Olivia never changed. She's still flickering on the silver screen somewhere, crushing out a cigarette underneath her heels, lips stained and eyes smoldering while John Travolta crumples to his knees and swallows his fist in surprise. And girls still watch it and know intuitively, without words or articles like this, that it's the impact they want to make in the world. So that some hotshot, or some producer, or some audience might look at her one day and say, of all the people in the world, you're the one I want.

 
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